Bernard Ingham: Nuclear shambles shows why Brown and Britain are losing power game

YOU may think I am going soft, but I feel rather sorry for Gordon Brown. In the current torrid political atmosphere, every minor hiccough becomes a disaster to be laid at his door. Take, for example, the French failure so far to buy British Energy (BE), our nuclear generator.

Disaster awaits, it seems, because two shareholders, Invesco and the Pru, think EdF, the French energy company, should pay more than 12bn for BE. They have a point because gas, electricity and the penalties for pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere are not going to come cheap in the future.

BE, with its prime nuclear sites generating carbon-free power, a high-tech workforce and local support for its operations, is a valuable asset. Lots of energy folk want part of its action.

Reasonably, Invesco and the Pru seek to maximise their investment return. EdF, with all the resources of Areva, the French nuclear giant behind it, is being invited to up its price.

It might have been convenient for the Government, owning 35.2 per cent of BE, to have gone on holiday with the EdF takeover completed. But it is most certainly not "a hammer blow to Gordon Brown's deluded nuclear ambitions", as the eternally deluded Greenpeace puts it.

After all, not a single reactor system will be licensed for use in Britain for at least a couple of years. And you can't have a public inquiry into a new power station (which Greenpeace will try to delay endlessly) until you have something to licence. So keep your hair on.

If you insist on tearing it out in lumps over energy, at least do so for the right reason – namely, the state of British energy policy generally. It is a miracle how anybody contemplating its shambles is not already as bald as a badger.

It should be humiliating for Britain, the pioneer of nuclear power, to be looking to France, no less, to bring about our nuclear renaissance. But BE is only tiny compared with the big players in the nuclear world and needs to get inside a big tent.

This would not be so if we British did not behave so often like foolish virgins. We have simultaneously fiddled while North Sea oil and gas has burnt and succumbed to the seductive sweet talk of professional Greens whose virulent anti-nuclear prejudice masks a massive ignorance of energy realities.

In the process BE was not just held back to run ageing nuclear power stations. It was even bankrupted in 2002 by the Government in its drive to cut electricity prices.

Having rescued it, the Government then sold part of its majority stake to raise more cash to waste and, blow me down, even sold another nuclear asset, Westinghouse, just as it was accumulating nuclear power station orders across the world worth billions of dollars.

It is richly ironic that Invesco and the Pru would not have been able to do a thing about the desired Frenchification of BE if the Government had held on to all its shares – and that we might not have needed EdF had we hung on to Westinghouse.

By now, I feel a little less sorry for Gordon Brown. But the

real problem is not his embarrassment over BE but his failure to secure the nation's lifeblood – its energy supplies.

He has long known three things: that North Sea oil and gas are past their peak – after all, he collected their revenues as Chancellor; that for political reasons Mr Putin and Islamic nations are not entirely reliable suppliers; and that by 2015 or so, electricity supply is going to be very tight indeed because a third of our ageing coal and nuclear generating capacity is due to close over the next 10-15 years.

Yet until three years ago, Brown went along with the "Green" myth that nuclear was "economically unattractive". Now he is all for nuclear power. Yet he still parrots the Green claptrap that we need more and more wind power, even if you cannot run a nightlight on it when the wind doesn't blow.

Not surprisingly, since he seems so insecure in his policy, the Greens are now massed in north Kent to try to block the building of a new coal-fired power station. He should know by now that these crackpots are in favour of everything that doesn't work and against everything that does.

By comparison with all this, British Energy is a mere contretemps. It is but a symptom of the timid Government neglect that could soon impoverish

us all.